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Raptors determined to showcase deeper bench this season

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VICTORIA — As the Toronto Raptors have moved on from their championship era, there have been rightful questions about the ceiling of the team in the last few seasons

Could a roster that relied on Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet (and, to a lesser extent so far, O.G. Anunoby) compete with the beasts of the East, where MVP candidates lead quality teams with championship aspirations?

The jury remains out, though with Siakam establishing himself as an all-NBA player, VanVleet becoming an all-star and plenty of upside for Anunoby and especially Scottie Barnes still to be realized, concerns about the ceiling have been put aside, it seems.

At the very least, most would agree, the Raptors’ core is very good. Barnes’ development could make them that much better still. Who knows, maybe they can become great.

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We’ll see. It will take some time before there’s a definitive answer, which is why the Raptors ultimately opted to stand pat in the off-season, rather than go ‘all-in’ to trade for some of the high-end talent that was on the market.

But while that plays out, the Raptors opted to shore up another area that proved to be a significant weakness the past two seasons: upgrading the team’s floor.

In a departure from years past, the quality of the Raptors bench was suboptimal last season.

There was a reason VanVleet and Siakam tied for the NBA lead in minutes per game, Barnes was eighth and led all rookies, Gary Trent Jr. was 14th and Anunoby would have been fifth had he played enough games to qualify: Raptors head coach Nick Nurse didn’t trust his bench.

That likely won’t be the case this season. If the Raptors have another seven-game stretch like they did in late January and early February last season where Nurse played Siakam and VanVleet 43 and 42 minutes a game, respectively, and virtually ignored his second unit, something will have gone horribly wrong. The Raptors did win all seven of the games, but it’s not a method that’s sustainable.

“I do feel better about our depth,” Nurse said Tuesday as the Raptors started a four-day training camp in Victoria.

The Raptors’ highest profile free agent signing, Otto Porter, projects as the kind of quality veteran who can sit comfortably in the middle of the rotation, soaking minutes whereever and whenever necessary.

Thaddeus Young, acquired at the trade deadline by Toronto, was signed to a two-year deal that will carry him through his 16th and 17th season. He offers some similar qualities.

Even Juancho Hernangomez, a low-profile addition made late in the off-season, is the kind of deep-shooting big that can often thrive as part of a strong second unit.

And we haven’t even touched on the youngsters that are part of the Raptors’ development plan – Dalano Banton, Justin Champagnie, and Malachi Flynn also will theoretically be pushing for minutes.

“[We’re] super deep, super deep,” Young said. “We have a lot of young guys that can play basketball, some guys on training-camp deals, you know, those guys can play as well. So, you know, just about finding the right combination, the right guys who can, you know, play in the right roles, and fulfil the right spots, and just going out there and continuously helping with the growth of the guys that’s on the team.”

The benefits of a quality bench don’t have to be proven to anyone in the organization, Nurse included. It wasn’t that long ago (2017-18) that the likes of Siakam and VanVleet were joined by then-Raptors youngsters Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, and veteran CJ Miles in the ‘bench mob’ – a devastating five-man unit that routinely took over games and helped Toronto to a then-team record 58 wins.

No one is projecting that the Raptors are going to the route of having a set five-man bench unit this season, but competition for minutes outside of the ‘core four’ will be intense, which should give Nurse plenty of options beyond running out his starters for league-leading minutes totals.

Porter, in particular, should provide options, given the 10-year veteran’s ability to fit into a variety of lineups, as he showed last season when he both started and came off the bench for the NBA champion Golden State Warriors.

‘I think that the addition of Otto is a big one,” said Nurse. “He’s a multi-faceted player. Multi-positional-type guy that we like. He is legit 6-8 and can shoot the ball — Otto’s a really good just basketball player. He does the right things; he’s in the right spots. The ball gets swung around and kicked to him, he makes the three … I mean that’s pretty valuable but he just, you can just see the composure and experience and the pace with which he plays … (It) all fits in really good so yeah, he’s good he’s a good player.

If there is one player whose minutes the Raptors are determined to dial down, it’s VanVleet. The seven-year veteran was a different player after the all-star break as he struggled with a knee problem and eventually had to shut down during Toronto’s first-round loss to the Philadelphia 76ers with a bruised hip.

It’s easier said than done, Nurse acknowledges.

“I hope we can get it done. I think the hard part about it, too, is when we all sit down in chairs in an office, it seems easy,’ he said. “… It’s not the same as when the ball’s up and you’re in a tough game. And you know, it’s a one-point game, and you got three minutes to go, and you’re saying, ‘Oh, jeez (VanVleet is) at 38 minutes and if we don’t take him out, now he’s gonna go to 41’.

“(But) we’re on the road. And it’s a one-point game in Miami … that’s kind of the real life. That’s different than never all standing here without the heat of the battle or sitting in our offices without the heat of the battle. But the point (cutting back on VanVleet’s minutes) has been brought to my attention.”

The Raptors will be doing it by committee, as the one obvious path to trimming back VanVleet’s minutes — acquiring a proven point guard to back him up — was a path Toronto didn’t go down. Instead, it will likely play out with Siakam, Anunoby and Barnes initiating the offence more and giving VanVleet more reps off the ball – where he excels as a catch-and-shoot three-point threat – and more games off or more time on the bench.

But even minor adjustments to the starters’ minutes should have a trickle-down effect throughout the lineup. How it takes shape is hardly set in stone and will inevitably evolve as the season wears on and injuries and rest force the issue.

“What I’m hoping is the six through 10 guys are capable enough to replace the starters, and those other guys are capable when we need them. And we’re gonna need them,” said Nurse. “That to me is real depth. It’s modern depth. There just seem to be a lot more guys that hit the floor and need to produce in more situations than in the olden days. It’s not just getting to eight or nine. It’s getting to 13 or 14 and those guys making sure they’re ready. Because they will get their chance.”

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Canada coach John Herdman disputes Croatian counterpart's account of skipped post-match handshake – The Globe and Mail

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Canada head coach John Herdman during a World Cup match against Croatia, at the Khalifa International Stadium, in Doha, Qatar, on Nov. 27.The Associated Press

Canada coach John Herdman is disputing his Croatian counterpart’s account of why there was no handshake after their World Cup game.

Herdman had antagonized the Croatian camp with a heated postgame message to his players after Canada’s opening 1-0 loss to Belgium at the soccer showcase. Asked in a pitch-side interview what he had said in a postgame huddle to his players, Herdman replied: “I told them they belong here and we’re going to go and eff – Croatia. That’s as simple as it gets.”

That prompted a stern lecture from Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic on the need for respect. And after Croatia beat the Canadians 4-1 Sunday, Dalic was asked if he had a chance to shake hands with Herdman following the final whistle.

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“I did not see the other head coach after the match,” he said through an interpreter. “When I lose I always congratulate the winner. He was not there and that’s his way of doing things. He’s obviously mad. He is a good coach. He is a high-quality professional. But it will take some time for him to learn some things.”

Herdman, whose postgame news conference preceded Dalic’s on Sunday, disputed that account Wednesday when asked about it.

“Look, we shook hands before the game. So that happened,” he said. “At the end of the game, the usual process – no different than [with Belgium coach] Roberto Martinez. You shake hands with the coach, then you go shake hands with the referee.

“When I turned round, [Dalic] was already off down the touchline, which is his right to do. He’s celebrating. He’s just beaten Canada. It was a big celebration for him. He was off and I couldn’t get to shake his hand. I went into the field, shook the ref’s hand, shook players’ hands. And didn’t get to see him.

“That moment’s gone. We’re into process now – team huddle, see your fans, flash interviews, calm yourself down so you don’t say anything and move on.”

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Argentina coast past Poland 2-0 to top World Cup Group C – Al Jazeera English

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Second-half goals from Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez cap a return to form for the South American giants.

Argentina coasted past Poland in a 2-0 victory on Wednesday night to top Group C and confirm their place in the last 16 of the World Cup, signalling a return to form for the South American giants after a poor start to this year’s tournament.

Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez’s second-half goals capped a dominant display by coach Lionel Scaloni’s charges at Stadium 974 – which was packed to the rafters with tens of thousands of raucous Argentinian supporters – to set up a clash with Australia on Saturday.

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After a goalless first 45 minutes, Mac Allister got on the end of Nahuel Molina’s cross just one minute into the second period and, despite making weak contact, he saw his shot creep over the line with Polish keeper Wojciech Szczesny beaten.

The second goal was the result of patient buildup play which saw Argentina shift the ball around before Enzo Fernandez made a defence-splitting pass for Julian Alvarez, who found space in the box and smashed it into the top corner to effectively kill the game in the 67th minute.

Poland were lifeless throughout but managed to also squeeze through to the knockout phase on goal difference at the expense of Mexico, who beat Saudi Arabia 2-1 in Group C’s other match.

They will meet defending champions France in the last 16 on Sunday.

Argentina's Alexis Mac Allister scores their first goal
Mac Allister opened the scoring for Argentina immediately after half-time [Issei Kato/Reuters]

Messi misses from the penalty spot

The first half’s defining moment came in the 39th minute when Argentina captain and talisman Lionel Messi failed to convert from the penalty spot on his record-breaking 22nd World Cup match, one more than the late Diego Maradona managed for La Albiceleste.

Poland were up in arms when Argentina were awarded the penalty after a VAR check for a foul on Messi when Szczesny’s glove brushed his face as the Paris St Germain forward rose up for a header at the far post.

But Szczesny was up to the task and despite the Argentina fans raising the decibel levels inside the arena, he kept his composure and guessed correctly, diving to his left and using one hand to swat aside Messi’s effort.

Not to be deterred, Messi never stopped surging forward and he was a menace to Poland all throughout the game with his dribbling ability and vision.

His glittering performance stood in stark contrast to that of Poland’s star striker Robert Lewandowski, who was deprived of service and virtually anonymous for the duration of the match.

Messi, 35, has admitted this will likely be his last World Cup outing while Lewandoski, 34, has said he is unsure if he will make it to the 2026 edition in North America but would like to do so.

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Maple Leafs extend win streak to five games as Marner enters record book – Sportsnet.ca

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